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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The 5th Dimension: Portrait

THE 5TH DIMENSION: PORTRAIT (1970)

1) Puppet Man; 2) One Less Bell To Answer; 3) Feelin' Alright?; 4) This Is Your Life; 5) A Love Like Ours; 6) Save The Country; 7) The Declaration / A Change Is Gonna Come / People Gotta Be Free; 8) Dimension 5ive.

Not a lot of departures here from the formula of Aquarius, but the ones that do get noticed are not particularly auspicious. But first, the good news: ʽPuppet Manʼ is not only the best opening song on a 5th Dimension album, period — it also beats the shit out of both Neil Sedaka's original and Tom Jones' Vegas-ized version. With a sharp-stinging electric guitar lead, the band's usual stunning multi-part harmonies, and particularly the girls' fiery, well-empowered lead vocals, the song definitely rocks here — which is kind of amusing, considering how the lyrics are all about personal submission. (Then again, there's nothing more powerful in the world than voluntary total and absolute submission, I guess — just look at ʽVenus In Fursʼ).

Alas, the song also gives you false hopes — that, perhaps, the rest of the album might, too, con­form to this «electric soul» idiom, not too far removed from classic Funkadelic in terms of juici­ness and intensity. Nope! Released as a single, ʽPuppet Manʼ only made it all the way up to No. 24; and when the band resorted to its usual weapon of choice and followed it up with a typically excellent Laura Nyro cover, ʽSave The Countryʼ, it fared even worse and stalled at No. 27, de­spite all the upbeat gospelishness, all the enticing organ swirls and brass fanfares, all the enthu­siasm poured into the "we could build the dream with love" chorus. Oh, you can never tell with the American public: first they raise you up with ʽWedding Bell Bluesʼ, then they bring you down — harshly — when you give them something equally catchy and tasty.

So what's a poor fifth dimension to do in a situation like this? Fall back on sappy, shapeless sen­timentality and release ʽOne Less Bell To Answerʼ, a slow Bacharach/David tear jerker of the «ultimate housewife» variety — technically, sung to absolute perfection by Marilyn McCoo, but substantially, containing absolutely nothing but atmosphere, an empty vessel for whoever is more or less able to imbue it with dramatic content (of the soap variety, mostly). Naturally, it was that song that had to become the biggest commercial success from the album, and pretty much set the basic development trends for the band in the next few years. (I admit to having never been a big fan of Burt Bacharach — the Johann Strauss Junior of the Great American Songbook, from a certain point of view — but he did write quite a few better songs than this piece of thoroughly unmemorable mush).

In between these commercially low / artistically high and commercially high / artistically low points, Portrait wobbles and vacillates, largely depending on source material. The obligatory Jimmy Webb song this time around is ʽThis Is Your Lifeʼ, unfortunately, also slow, mushy and way too pompous to be taken seriously. The cover of Traffic's ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ is decent, and Billy Davis Jr. gives a good Otis Redding-ish soul take on the original vocal part, but is nowhere near close to the «interestingly personal» Joe Cocker version. Then there's a guy called Bob Alcivar, apparently responsible for the orchestration and also saddling the band with two of his own compositions — the lush pop ballad ʽA Love Like Oursʼ (so-so) and the lite jazz / lite clas­sical mash-up ʽDimension 5iveʼ, somewhat ambitious but still way too corny for my tastes (I guess the idea was to produce something like the band's own take on the Pet Sounds instrumen­tals, but the results are much cuddlier and kiddish).

Worst of the lot, though, and deserving to be registered as a legendary embarrassment in the history of hippie muzak, is the idea to set to music nothing less than The Declaration Of Indepen­dence itself — in a three-part medley with Sam Cooke's ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ and The Young Rascals' ʽPeople Gotta Be Freeʼ. While the Cooke cover, like the Traffic cover, is decent (but adds nothing to the glorious original), the vocal performance of ʽThe Declarationʼ simply has to be heard to be disbelieved: they really do rip through a large part of the Preamble, alternating between male and female leads and trying their best to squeeze the dense prose of the text into soul music phrasing. The most horrible thing about it is that — who knows? — there might well be people out there inspired by this brand of starch-heavy, gluten-rich musical corn. But, I mean, yeah, who else but a band of superficially-minded, commercially-oriented, family-friendly pseudo-hippies to remind society of certain self-evident truths?..

All in all, here be a mixed bag if there ever was one — swinging all the way from the coolness of ʽPuppet Manʼ to the catastrophe of ʽThe Declarationʼ, from the upbeat, catchy inspiration of ʽSave The Countryʼ to the instantly forgettable mush of ʽOne Less Bell To Answerʼ, and so on; a classic case of up and down thumbs outcanceling each other, but this is precisely what compila­tions and self-made playlists are there for these days.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Blues From The Gutter

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: BLUES FROM THE GUTTER (1958)

1) Strollin'; 2) TB Blues; 3) Can't Kick The Habit; 4) Evil Woman; 5) Nasty Boogie; 6) Junker's Blues; 7) Bad Blood; 8) Goin' Down Slow; 9) Frankie And Johnnie; 10) Stack-O-Lee.

Probably the single best known album of the Champion's career — if only for being, well, the first album of the Champion's career: Blues From The Gutter, released at the tail end of the Fifties, opens a long, long, long, and largely ignored string of LPs, and back then it had the benefit of intro­ducing Dupree to a fresh new audience, one that was actually interested in hearing him play, as opposed to all those singles from the 1940s, released in the face of a largely indif­ferent and highly limited New York public. Above all, it was his debut for Atlantic Records, and that in itself was a guarantee that the man would be heard world-wide — in fact, reliable sources state that Blues From The Gutter made a fairly deep impression on none other than Brian Jones himself, even if in the grand scheme of things it was probably not too significant.

Part of that impression was owed not to the Champ himself, but to his backing band, which here included such seasoned session players as Pete Brown on sax and Wendell Marshall (who'd played with Duke Ellington and a boatload of other jazz notables) on double-bass, and particular­ly Ennis Lowery (who later took the name of Larry Dale) on electric guitar. For those used to Dupree's near-solo performances, or his low quality recordings with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the image of the Champion recording with a full-and-willin' blues band under profes­sional modern studio conditions must have been a revelation — in fact, it was probably a revela­tion to Dupree himself, who took the opportunity to re-record a couple of his old classics (ʽTB Bluesʼ, ʽJunker's Bluesʼ — the latter leaving all of its drug-related lyrics completely intact), throw in a few more time-honored standards (ʽFrankie And Johnnyʼ, ʽStack-O-Leeʼ), and introduce a decent level of variety, ranging all the way from slow soulful blues (ʽGoin' Down Slowʼ) to rol­lickin' boogie-woogie (ʽNasty Boogieʼ).

The addition of Lowery is indeed a good touch: the man is a disciple of B. B. King, well versed in the art of sharp, stinging electric blues leads (ʽTB Bluesʼ is a particular highlight), and he adds an element of «Chicago blues danger» to the relaxed, leisurely stroll mode of Dupree, even if the two do not look all that much like a match made in Heaven upon first sight; and he does not get to solo on the album's merriest piece, ʽNasty Boogieʼ, which is instead dominated by the piano / sax duet, and where even the bassist is allowed to take the spotlight for a few bars, but not the lead guitarist — who prefers to stick stubbornly to the slow blues idiom, and for a good reason, I guess: not every great blues player is an equally great boogie player, and vice versa. Then again, it's a sensible distribution of labor: get the sax guy to be your partner on the lighter numbers, and the guitar guy to be your foil on the darker ones.

As for Dupree himself, he is arguably at his best on the opening number, a simple New Orleanian shuffle called ʽStrollin'ʼ and featuring neither guitar nor sax — just the Champ taking his time, improvising a leisurely syncopated jazz rhythm and alternating it with a couple of brief ragtimey solos as he hums out whatever is on his mind. Not exactly the kind of sound you'd expect to come out «from the gutter», but then again, a gentleman like Champion Jack Dupree probably has to keep his cool even in the gutter — considering the dignity and reservation with which he narrates his protagonist's drug problems on ʽJunker's Bluesʼ and ʽCan't Kick The Habitʼ. And, by the way, the title of the album is fully justified if one simply counts the number of songs about drugs, decay, and death — cocaine, tuberculosis, and cold-blooded murder are the norm of day on this album, which certainly was not true about the average Chicago blues album in 1958, where themes of woman-hunting ruled high above everything else. All in all, even if the music as such is hardly exceptional here (just average even by contemporary standards), the very fact of an old pre-war urban blues piano man really making it in the nearly-modern era is quite admirable, con­sidering that Dupree, on the whole, represents a blues-playing tradition that is older than that of  B. B. King or, in a way, even that of Muddy Waters. Definitely a thumbs up, on the grounds of mild enjoyability amplified by strong curiosity.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Hollies: Stay With The Hollies

THE HOLLIES: STAY WITH THE HOLLIES (1964)

1) Talkin' 'Bout You; 2) Mr. Moonlight; 3) You Better Move On; 4) Lucille; 5) Baby Don't Cry; 6) Memphis; 7) Stay; 8) Rockin' Robin; 9) Watcha Gonna Do 'Bout It; 10) Do You Love Me; 11) It's Only Make Believe; 12) What Kind Of Girl Are You; 13) Little Lover; 14) Candy Man; 15*) Ain't That Just Like Me; 16*) Hey What's Wrong With Me; 17*) Searchin'; 18*) Whole World Over; 19*) Now's The Time; 20*) Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah; 21*) I Understand; 22*) Stay; 23*) Poison Ivy.

Most of the early British Invasion acts had a role model or two from across the Atlantic before they'd start to carve out their own identities — it was only a matter of how early that carving-out process would start, especially relative to that defining moment when the band in question would first set foot in a proper recording studio and land its first record contract. From that point of view, The Hollies landed theirs a bit too early in the game (imagine, for a second, The Beatles getting theirs in late 1960 rather than late 1962), and although, in retrospect, this does not sound like that much of a problem, Stay With The Hollies set them off on the wrong foot in the LP business department — an inauspicious move whose consequences, it might be argued, would reverberate through the band's entire career.

The role model in question was, of course, The Everly Brothers — in fact, The Hollies pretty much started out intentionally as the UK's answer to Phil and Don, with Allan Clarke and Gra­ham Nash modeling themselves as a folk-rockish singing duo; and even if the band's debut album does not include any of the Everlys' songs as such, most of its material is delivered very much in the Everlys' style. Sound-wise, The Hollies played a very polite, anger-less, family-friendly ver­sion of rock'n'roll that went light on electric guitars and heavy on two-part vocal harmonies: like Phil and Don, they were not at all averse to taking lessons from Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but they always emphasized the melodic, rather than punkish, sides of these guys, and the Hollies followed suit — their cover of Little Richard's ʽLucilleʼ here is almost 100% identical to the way the Everlys did it, and that's the way it would always be.

That said, even without any original ideas and without any significant attempts to write their own songs, already at that earliest stage The Hollies had a major advantage of their own — a lead singer blessed with a voice every bit as distinctive as that of John Lennon, Mick Jagger, or Eric Burdon. As the record opens with a standard guitar introduction to Chuck Berry's ʽTalkin' 'Bout Youʼ, the very first line, "let me tell you 'bout a girl I know...", even though it is sung in harmony by Allan Clarke and Graham Nash (and maybe Tony Hicks as well?), totally belongs to Allan, as does almost everything else on this album. It is not a deep, rumbling tone of the Eric Burdon variety, or a sharp, guttural, devilish tone of the Mick Jagger one — it is a high, ringing, and ever so slightly raspy tone that suggests inoffensiveness and friendliness, yet ones that go along with punchiness if necessary. It is a tone that stands out loud and proud in a sea of millions, and one that can't help drawing your attention, just because you instinctively feel how extreme it is. And it is pretty damn hard to be extreme in the middle of a soft-melodic vibe, yet somehow Clarke's singing is that one element which makes words like «wimpy» or «sissy» inapplicable to The Hollies, and words like «kick-ass» fairly reasonable.

And there's not much to say other than that, really, about the fourteen songs on this record — but then, nothing else is needed, because The Hollies' taste in covers was good, and with Allan giving it his all, they succeed in producing sharp, deeply enjoyable, and far-from-superfluous versions of many of them. Not many people, for instance, could have competed with the exuberance of The Contours, permeating every second of ʽDo You Love Meʼ — Mike Smith of The Dave Clark 5 sang the song as close to the «black-voiced» original as possible, which was indeed superfluous, but Clarke, adding a funny bit of gurgle to his razor-sharp voice, delivers it exactly as it should be delivered by a sneery, snotty, cocky, yet ultimately good-natured British teenager, coming up with the single best cover of the song until the maniacal cover of The Sonics a year later.

Another highlight is Roy Orbison's ʽCandy Manʼ: this is a particularly happy choice, because Roy wrote a good handful of excellent rock'n'roll songs without, however, being much of a rock'n'roll singer — and this provides Clarke with a great chance to squeeze all of the tune's implied sexua­lity onto the surface. Is «cock pop» even a term? If it is not, it should be invented specifically for this hilarious performance: musically cuddly, no match for even the Beatles, let alone the Stones, but vocally... hoo boy, just lock up your daughters when Allan mouths "let me be... mmm, your own cande-e-e-e... candy ma-a-a-an", even if, to the best of my knowledge, the UK press never saw much of a threat in the Hollies (probably because they never had themselves an Andrew Loog Oldham to market their threat-ability).

Sure, some of these covers work worse than others: just as in the case of the Beatles, for instance, it is hard to understand the love they all had for ʽMr. Moonlightʼ (here spoiled even further by the unlucky choice of Nash as the lead vocalist — doesn't seem to be the right kind of material for him at all), and Bobby Day's novelty-nursery hit ʽRockin' Robinʼ is one of these proto-bubblegum numbers that is very hard to take seriously with its tweedle-dees. The only original composition on the album is ʽLittle Loverʼ, delivered with plenty of fire but songwriting-wise, largely just a minor variation on the Chuck Berry formula (although the resolution of the chorus, with the un­expected twist of "come on and discover... my lo-o-o-o-ve for you!" is quite indicative of future pop songwriting ideas to come). But on the whole, there are very few open embarrassments / misfires compared to the number of good songs done in classy Hollies style.

Admittedly, that style has not yet been fully worked out: somewhat parallel to the earliest recordings by The Beach Boys, it took the band some time to become experts in studio multi-part harmonizing, so most of the entertainment here is simply provided either by Allan solo or by Allan propped up and thickened by the two other singing guys. Likewise, guitarist Tony Hicks is not at the top of his game, either, although his brief, well thought-out leads compete rather well with contemporary George Harrison. Yet even so, the album still sounds remarkably fresh and enjoyable, rather than boring and generic, after all these years — a decent career start, well worth a modest thumbs up, in the face of the typically cool critical reaction.

The expanded CD reissue is essential for completists, throwing on the band's first three singles from 1963, but I am not a major fan of The Hollies covering The Coasters — they did not really have that band's innate sense of humor, so ʽAin't That Just Like Meʼ and ʽSearchin'ʼ come off somewhat stiffer than necessary — so in this particular case, you won't be uncovering any hidden gems, as opposed to subsequent albums where the bonus tracks are essential, since many of them represent the band's finest, single-oriented songwriting efforts.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Brian Jonestown Massacre: Don't Get Lost

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: DON'T GET LOST (2017)

1) Open Minds Now Close; 2) Melody's Actual Echo Chamber; 3) Resist Much Obey Little; 4) Charmed I'm Sure; 5) Groove Is In The Heart; 6) One Slow Breath; 7) Throbbing Gristle; 8) Fact 67; 9) Dropping Bombs On The Sun; 10) UFO Paycheck; 11) Geldenes Herz Menz; 12) Acid 2 Me Is No Worse Than War; 13) Nothing New To Trash Like You; 14) Ich Bin Klang.

At this point, I am beginning to question myself whether or not this recent explosion of BJM albums might be due to Anton Newcombe misunderstanding the meaning of the classic Latin recommendation of Festina lente. Where most people would understand it sort of figuratively, as a call to focused and efficient action tempered by prudence and accuracy, Newcombe seems to take it more literally — as an appeal to release as many new records in the upcoming years as possible, containing as many slow-moving, hyper-draggy songs as possible.

At least the previous three albums were all short; Don't Get Lost clocks in at approximately 72 minutes — admittedly, not a record length for Newcombe, who used to be famous for slowly and meticulously bleeding out his grooves until the CD begged for mercy; but the last time he did that was in the era of the band's artistic «rebirth» with My Bloody Underground and Who Killed Sgt. Pepper, almost a decade ago. Since then, Newcombe experienced no new rebirths, largely returning to the original style of BJM, occasionally diversified by stylistic references to groove styles past 1967, and Don't Get Lost is no exception to the rule: the fourteen tracks captured here will give you no new insights whatsoever.

And me, too, I find myself at a loss once again. Clearly, the only way this sloth-like guy could churn out such a huge record about four months after his previous one was by quickly working out a few grooves and sticking to them — indeed, the opening track, ʽOpen Minds Now Closeʼ, rides on for eight minutes without a single deviation from its established formula. It's like a metronomic, unnerving groove by Can, but simplified to the core and with absolutely no room left for improvisation: elevator muzak for dark psychedelic types. Naturally, with this approach it is the easiest thing in the world to stretch a potentially 30-minute long record to 70 minutes. But then again, I reserve harsh judgement, because BJM always goes best with mushrooms (this is an objective fact, scientifically verified by the band's leader), and I'm not much of a mushroom man, so I cannot verify if the textures of Newcombe are truly a perfect psychological fit with chemi­cally altered brain activity or not.

In the sphere of ideology, Anton is still pretending that some of his songs should function as manifestos, hence such titles as ʽResist Much Obey Littleʼ (a bit paradoxical, since the steady, cyclical, descending-ascending acoustic rhythm pattern of the song is so mind-numbing that it only makes you want to resist little and obey much, at best) and ʽAcid 2 Me Is No Worse Than Warʼ, one of the album's few excursions into soft techno, drum machines, sampled vocals, and siren-themed synthesizers. ʽDropping Bombs On The Sunʼ is another title that might trigger poli­tical associations, and yet again, the track is a slow, totally stoned groove, ruled by minimalistic brass-imitating tones and lead vocals from Tess Parks, who still retains the status of Anton's muse by managing to sound twice as stoned as he does. («And far sexier», I wanted to add before rea­lizing that having sex with Tess Parks, judging from the perspective of her musical output, would probably only be efficient in an alternate universe where one minute of their time equals one hour of ours. «Slow down, you move too fast» is definitely not about these guys).

In his struggle to retain his cool, Newcombe does things that I hardly understand at all — for instance, calling one of the tracks ʽThrobbing Gristleʼ, even though Throbbing Gristle themselves would probably have regarded the entire brand of BJM production as a cheap profanation of the genuine avantgarde aesthetics (the track itself is just another monotonous psychedelic groove with Parks yawning and groaning all over the place). The next-to-last track, ʽNothing New To Trash Like Youʼ, is surprisingly faster than the rest — pretty much a generic rockabilly number buried under the generic layers of BJM production, and still somehow managing to sound as lethargic as everything else. One other track, ʽGeldenes Herz Menzʼ, sounds like modern lounge jazz put through the same motions — fussy jazzy drumming and tons of soft sax overdubs, hardly a subgenre where the man might make much of an impression.

Overall, just another year, just another album: nothing too bad, nothing too revelatory. And brace yourselves, because the guy is not about to stop — he's gonna crawl on and on and on, because the number of same-sounding draggy grooves with tons of wobbly overdubs that he can theoreti­cally produce is infinity.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cass McCombs: Big Wheel & Others

CASS McCOMBS: BIG WHEEL & OTHERS (2013)

1) Sean I; 2) Big Wheel; 3) Angel Blood; 4) Morning Star; 5) The Burning Of The Temple, 2012; 6) Brighter!; 7) There Can Be Only One; 8) Name Written In Water; 9) Joe Murder; 10) Everything Has To Be Just-So; 11) It Means A Lot To Know You Care; 12) Dealing; 13) Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love; 14) Satan Is My Toy; 15) Sean II; 16) Home On The Range; 17) Brighter!; 18) Untitled Spain Song; 19) Sean III; 20) Honesty Is No Excuse; 21) Aeon Of Aquarius Blues; 22) Unearthed.

I wonder if I should or should not go the «ambitious is always good» route here? After all, it is not true that this last decade is completely free of grand, larger-than-thou musical gestures: from Arcade Fire and all the way to Kanye West, people are still trying to bite off more than they can chew, even as natural selection causes their jaws to keep shrinking with each new generation. And after a string of serious musical disappointments, could it be the right decision for Cass McCombs to gamble it all on a sprawling, two-disc collection of twenty songs in half a dozen different musical styles, presenting his own, contemporary mega-take on Americana?..

As usual, the absolute majority of other people's positive opinions that I have seen focus almost exclusively on the lyrics. And they are really good lyrics, yes: the man is now capable even of finding a non-clichéd way to deliver a sermon on the age-old problem of peace, love, and mutual understanding (ʽEverything Has To Be Just-Soʼ), let alone continuing to find fresh metaphors to lay on the age-older problem of him-and-her (ʽSooner Cheat Death Than Fool Loveʼ) or, inciden­tally, deliver some of the most viciously offensive anti-religious (anti-clerical, to be accurate) chastushkas to come out of the progressive camp (ʽSatan Is My Toyʼ), though you have to listen really carefully to get it. And you have to listen even more carefully, sometimes, to understand if he is using redneck imagery directly and scornfully, or as a metaphor for something completely different altogether (ʽBig Wheelʼ). Anyway, the guy continues to be a good poet...

...but does he continue to be a good musician? That's a far more difficult question. Despite the sprawling length of this collection, it manages to avoid both the unending lethargy of Wit's End and the simplistic repetitive crudeness of Humor Risk. With a couple tolerable exceptions, the songs do not seriously overstay their welcome, run along at steady, energetic rootsy tempos, and occasionally feature vocal and instrumental pop hooks, so it's not really much of a chore sitting through all of this in one go. And, as somewhat inferior, derivative resuscitations of age-honored musical styles, they work all right. ʽBig Wheelʼ will appeal to anybody who'd like to know how Chuck Berry would sound when played by Fairport Convention (but with musicianship that would probably make Richard Thompson cringe). ʽAngel Bloodʼ and a whole bunch of other country-tinged tracks here will warm the heart of all Gram Parsons fans (on the whole, I'd say that Gram Parsons could all but be proclaimed this record's mascot). ʽJoe Murderʼ is Joy Division bleakness peppered with avantgarde sax blasts à la original King Crimson. ʽDealingʼ and a couple more acoustic ballads recycle the old Donovan / ʽDear Prudenceʼ chord sequences... all in all, these reworked influences are okay, and it is clear that Cass is not interested in pushing any boundaries — he just wants himself some tasteful backdrops for his statements.

Which, much as I am trying to fight this, inevitably brings us back to the lyrics and the whole conceptual shenanigan — especially since the album is introduced (and then twice more inter­rupted) with bits of dialog sampled from the 1969 documentary Sean, a series of dialogs between a filmmaker and a 4-year old kid raised by his hippie parents in Haight-Ashbury (apparently, Cass had been a fan of the documentary for quite a long time, since some of his songs were used for the soundtrack of a follow-up, Following Sean, as early as 2005). Given that the dialog re­veals the little boy to be a grass smoker, a police-hater, and a God denier, you could say that Big Wheel & Others revolves around some sort of anti-establishment frame, but Cass is too smart and too hip to come out with any unambiguous judgements... too smart and hip, really, so much so that, ultimately, the record still suffers from a certain emotional vacuum. Is he angry? Is he sad? Is he from another planet? Is he just telling it like it is? Does he agree with Sean on all the philo­sophical points the boy makes? Does he eat grass, or smoke it? Who knows?

Anyway, I'd be totally wasted if I started waxing philosophical over all these songs, so let's just skip over to the last one — you know, the coda, the finale, the denouement, the unveiling of The Truth, whatever, and hey, it's called ʽUnearthedʼ, so it might really reveal something. What have we got here? Acoustic, slightly lo-fi, slow ballad, "it won't be too long, it won't be too long", so there's some sort of blind prophet apocalypse vibe... "I moved 75 thousand tons of earth with my teeth... I met a toad that belched up a bottle" (this is sung a bit close to the motif of ʽA Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fallʼ), "and in the bottle was a note, a note I knew you wrote... how come you keep your true feelings so well hidden?". Uh... that's it? This is how our long journey ends? This is why I had to sit through nine minutes of ʽEverything Has To Be Just-Soʼ and seven minutes of ʽHome On The Rangeʼ? Boy, what a downer.

The biggest problem with the album is that it is long, it is meandering, it is trying to tell us some­thing important — and it never really seems to understand what it is trying to tell us. It's one of those respectable, but wasted efforts where the smart artist outsmarts himself by focusing too much on his own enigma. On the bright side of things, it is a sort-of-timeless statement that is in no way bound hands-and-feet to the year or decade in which it was released, so who knows? per­haps, in fifty years time or less, critics will dig it out, dust it off, and declare it a major master­piece that was way ahead of its time, a time when reviewers either praised it without understan­ding it (like the Pitchfork people) or simply confessed to not understanding it (like yours truly). But my guess is that even fifty years from now, Big Wheel & Others will, at the very best, be one of those albums that everybody tips a hat to for the effort but nobody really listens to because it all kind of seems more impressive on paper than in the air.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Candlemass: Chapter VI

CANDLEMASS: CHAPTER VI (1992)

1) Dying Illusion; 2) Julie Laughs No More; 3) Where The Runes Still Speak; 4) Ebony Throne; 5) Temple Of The Dead; 6) Aftermath; 7) Black Eyes; 8) End Of Pain.

It seems to me that standard critical reaction to Candlemass albums follows a pretty simple block diagram, consisting of just one question — «Was there any bad shit going on with the band at the time of recording?» — and, depending on yes or no, the album is judged as good or bad. With Chapter VI, there was most definitely some bad shit going on: after some dispute with Marcolin whose details I am not interested in, Messiah left the band (or should the correct phrasing be «ascended away from the band», in this case?) and was replaced by Thomas Vikström, another relative newcomer to the world of metal — who lasted for only this one album. And since this was not perceived as an obvious change for the better, many people bypassed alternate logical choices and declared this as an obvious change for the worst.

As in the case of Ancient Dreams, I desperately fail to see what is so clearly wrong with Chap­ter VI. First, the new vocalist is in no way inferior to Marcolin. Technically, he can hit all the right notes, he can growl and scream, and his overtones fit right in with the band's music. Sub­stantially, it's all just overblown metal theater, and it's not like either of them are expected to genuinely awaken your sleeping emotions and bring out your undercover instincts — but here, too, I will say that at least Vikström has a bit of that snarly rasp in his voice that brings him closer to «metal punk» Dio or Bruce Dickinson territory: at his best, he is less of a pompous operatic screamer than Marco­lin and more of a brutal warrior type, even though you'd probably expect the opposite, given his origins (apparently, he is the son of a real Swedish opera singer).

More importantly, Chapter VI is generally faster than all previous Candlemass albums. There is a bit more thrash and power metal vibe here than usual, which is one reason why it might not appeal to serious doom metal aficionados. ʽDying Illusionʼ, after a brief atmospheric intro, opens with the same flying punch as Sabbath's ʽNeon Knightsʼ (perhaps, given the arrival of a new lead singer, they also felt the need to switch from an Ozzy-like Master Of Reality vibe to a Dio-like Heaven And Hell vibe?), and is a pretty impressive song on the whole, with numerous time and tempo changes, going from speed metal madness to funeral march and back in a surprisingly smooth and credible manner. It definitely does not sound like an Epicus-style track — but so much for the better, I'd say.

Elsewhere, there are quite a few decent riffs as well, such as the ones that open ʽEbony Throneʼ, ʽBlack Eyesʼ, and ʽEnd Of Painʼ — a bit more complex than usual, a bit less crazy about soun­ding like the Hand Of Doom closing in on you, more intent on simply sounding menacing and foreboding in a somewhat more abstract manner. Actually, I would say that it is the most tradi­tional Candlemass-style songs that suck the most on here, a particular nadir being ʽWhere The Runes Still Speakʼ — now that is one truly miserable ode to the magical mysteries of their mythical Teutonic past; nothing but a leaden guitar tone churning out the same repetitive slow chords over and over, and tons and tons of overblown mock-Wagnerian sentimentality. ʽTemple Of The Deadʼ, another lengthy epic, is at least marginally better due to a faster tempo and a more agile and complex riff; however, the overall rule of thumb here is that the shorter the song is, the more chances it has at being successful.

It's not as if I insist that the album deserves a thumbs up, but I think it will appeal to all those who really really really love their metal riffage, and I certainly disagree with all those who accuse Chapter VI of low energy or lack of inspiration (one could certainly accuse Candlemass in toto of a lack of inspiration — or, at least, originality — but not of low energy). Certainly not the worst chapter in their history, even if, at the time, so many people believed this, apparently, that the band had no choice but to break up soon afterwards.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Caravan: Better By Far

CARAVAN: BETTER BY FAR (1977)

1) Feelin' Alright; 2) Behind You; 3) Better By Far; 4) Silver Strings; 5) The Last Unicorn; 6) Give Me More; 7) Man In A Car; 8) Let It Shine; 9) Nightmare.

Okay, so if you want a proverbial example of what a «major drop in quality» truly means, look no further than the alarming gap that divides Blind Dog At St. Dunstan's, an energetic, inspired, and emotional pop album with progressive overtones, from Better By Far, a limp, mechanical, openly boring exercise in radio-friendly MOR music with no overtones whatsoever. It is always a puzzle to me how the exact same band can go from exciting to insipid in the short span separating one record from another, but yes, these things do happen.

First, this record does not rock, not in the slightest. Where Blind Dog gave us some nifty funky grooves, nicely steeped in a sharp, sarcastic attitude, Better By Far is almost completely given over to quiet, inoffensive soft-rock workouts, with completely conventional musical skeletons, generic (and heavily synth-based) musical arrangements, and energy levels that often sound pitiful compared to The Eagles, let alone the new blood of the punk movement of 1977. The opening number, ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ (not a Traffic cover), should be getting me up on my feet, cheering and clapping and welcoming a brand new day — instead, despite all the formal upbeat­ness, it feels drab and colorless, most of the «excitement» provided by Schelhaas' ugly and boring synth tone, and Pye's vocals inexplicably drowning in the sea of lackluster instrumentation instead of soaring on top of them. And that chorus? Other than a slight, predictable, pitch rise on the "feeling alRIGHT" bit, it does not even try too hard to separate itself from the pedestrian march of the verses. Awfully disappointing.

And it never gets better — all of these songs sound as if Pye and the others wrote them in about half an hour. The second song, ʽBehind Youʼ, rests on the same melodic foundations as ʽFeelin' Alrightʼ and tries to produce the exact same mood, except that it also incorporates a funky mid-section, again, dominated by ugly keyboards. The title track leads us into balladeering territory and ends up sounding even more like contemporary Bee Gees than like contemporary Wings, Pye's sweet voice being pretty much the song's only saving grace as it finally manages to elevate itself above the MOR arrangement. But all of that is nothing compared to Richardson's ʽSilver Stringsʼ, which actually seems to intentionally sound like modern Bee Gees — disco basslines, falsetto harmonies, and a silly artistic gimmick where the "let me hear the silver strings" refrain is followed by some lazy mandolin plucking.

Some of the (usually just as bitterly disappointed) reviews of the album single out the last track, ʽNightmareʼ, as the LP's high point — most likely because it is the longest, most complex, and most «progressively oriented» song of the lot (and also features the most enigmatic, introspective, and noticeably troubled lyrics on the album). My impression, however, is that it is just as boring and mushy as everything here — a slow trotter, all atmosphere and very little proper melody, not to mention zero energy: even the violin and guitar solos, though technically melodic, mostly just meander on the spot and never end up going anywhere. I mean, you'd think a song called ʽNight­mareʼ should have something nightmarish about it, right? Well, there's hardly anything more «nightmarish» about it than there is about, say, an Elton John ballad from Blue Moves.

Vainly do I try to find anything here that would even remotely repeat, for instance, the triumph of the chorus of ʽAll The Wayʼ — now there, too, was a slow, sentimental, conventionally written epic ballad, but it did sound epic: it was an anthem, played out with a winning mix of tenderness and determination, gaining more and more strength and spirit as it went by. Strength and spirit are sorely lacking on this sucker, though — and, okay, if you don't have strength and spirit, give us bleakness, weakness, and chaos, show us a shining example of depression, but do not feed us with this gray blandness. Better By Far? «Better by far» than what, I wonder? The title alone is so irritating that I have no choice other than to give the record a thumbs down — the first truly bad record in Caravan history; yes, this is definitely one of those albums that may be counted as «one of the reasons punk had to happen», except the commercial fortunes of Caravan were so low at the time that most punks probably never heard it in the first place.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The 5th Dimension: The Age Of Aquarius

THE 5TH DIMENSION: THE AGE OF AQUARIUS (1969)

1) Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In; 2) Blowing Away; 3) Skinny Man; 4) Wedding Bell Blues; 5) Don'tcha Hear Me Callin' To Ya; 6) The Hideaway; 7) Workin' On A Groovy Thing; 8) Let It Be Me; 9) Sunshine Of Your Love; 10) The Winds Of Heaven; 11) Those Were The Days; 12) Let The Sunshine In (reprise).

If there was at least one good influence that Hair made on the musical world (outside of its social impact — making parents finally shed a tear for their hippie kids and all), it came in the form of a serious improvement of The 5th Dimension's fourth album over their third one. Not that anybody really gives a damn in 2017, but, on the other hand, the band's cover of ʽAquarius / Let The Sun­shine Inʼ is pretty much the only thing that the average customer these days might remember about the band in general, so at least there's that. Obviously, Hair and The 5th Dimension were made for each other, and here, the band commits to the experience one hundred percent, with soaring vocal harmonies and brass fanfares blaring Ennio Morricone out of the sky, while Billy Davis Jr. pulls his finest son-of-a-preacher-man impression on the ad-libbed part of ʽLet The Sunshine Inʼ — with an energy level easily matching that of Otis Redding (in fact, it would not be impossible to mistake him for Otis on this one).

If it were just the single, though, we'd have to count it as a fluke; surprisingly, the entire album is significantly more consistent than Stoned Soul Picnic, which probably had to do with the band and Bones Howe retaining the best of their songwriters and firing the worst ones (yes, we're sort of looking at you, Jeff Comanor). The best remains the best: there are two more Laura Nyro songs here, brilliantly sung by the band's female vocalists — ʽBlowing Awayʼ is upbeat soul-pop at its catchiest, funnest, and most powerful, while ʽWedding Bell Bluesʼ mixes that upbeatness and melodic optimism with a streak of sadness and yearning (it is, after all, about a girl losing hope of ever getting married), and Marilyn McCoo's vocals on both songs do full justice to Laura's originals (Marilyn is clearly more powerful and disciplined than Nyro, but that does not mean these are just technical, soulless renditions — she clearly understands Laura's messages, and is as perfect and loyal an interpreter as Laura could ever get).

Predictably, they are less successful when tackling genres they don't really know what to do with: while Cream's ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ cannot lose all of its sexy menace as long as the main riff stays relatively intact, it is obvious that the only thing this band and this production team can do with it is water it down — which they do, with happy harmonies, more of those brass fanfares, and a silly conga-driven break in the place of Clapton's solo. It made even less sense to put it near a bombastic, Vegas-style arrangement of ʽLet It Be Meʼ (I wonder if Billy Davis Jr. had to wear a rhinestone suit in the studio to properly get into character?), though, perhaps, not as little sense as ending the album with a cover of a cover of a cover — it was not enough that Mary Hopkin got herself a hit with ʽThose Were The Daysʼ after Gene Raskin had converted it from an old Russian gypsy-themed romance, no, the song also had to get a 5th Dimension seal on it (then again, it's personal here, since I hate stereotypical Russian romances and drinking songs with the same pas­sion that is usually reserved for intellectual Yankees hating stereotypical country music).

Still, misfires aside, there's a surprisingly large number of cool tunes here even beyond the title track and the Nyro covers. Michael and Ginger Kollander's ʽSkinny Manʼ is a chunk of charming bubblegum pop with intricate call-and-answer vocals between the boys and the girls in the band. Rudy Stevenson's ʽDont'cha Hear Me Callin' To Yaʼ has a tense, resolute Latin groove (stylisti­cally similar to Santana's ʽEvil Waysʼ, even though that song had not yet been released at the time). The only (but obligatory) Jimmy Webb cover, ʽThe Hideawayʼ, is a Randy Newmanesque Tin Pan Alley-ish family pop number that avoids Jimmy's sentimental excesses, even if its vocal hooks leave something to be desired. And as much as I am supposed to despise Neil Sedaka, I cannot deny that ʽWorkin' On A Groovy Thingʼ is a really well-written pop song, even despite sharing the subliminal message of rejecting intercourse before marriage ("let's not rush it, we'll take it slow" — yeah right, how about singing this with special guest Grace Slick on parallel lead vocals for extra sincerity?).

Subsequently, even if there are no signs whatsoever here that the band was somehow aware of changing musical fashions circa 1969 (and maybe that's a good thing — imagine Bones Howe trying to pull a Jimi Hendrix or a Led Zeppelin on us!), at least The Age Of Aquarius could not help but get pulled into the overall mega-healthy vortex of whatever was going on, when even thoroughly commercial songwriters, about as rebellious in nature as the local tax inspector, some­times produced musically challenging and tasteful material. Oh well, just a very good year on the whole, and for The 5th Dimension in particular — thumbs up, with the usual minimal reserva­tions here and there.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Vol. 4 (1951-1953)

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: VOL. 4: 1951-1953 (2009)

1) Deacon's Party; 2) My Baby's Comin' Back Home; 3) Just Plain Tired; 4) I'm Gonna Find You Someday; 5) Goin' Back To Louisiana; 6) Barrel House Mama; 7) Old, Old Woman; 8) Mean Black Snake; 9) The Woman I Love; 10) All Night Party; 11) Heart Breaking Woman; 12) Watchin' My Stuff; 13) Ragged And Hungry; 14) Somebody Changed The Lock; 15) Stumbling Block Blues; 16) Highway Blues; 17) Shake Baby Shake; 18) Number Nine Blues; 19) Drunk Again; 20) Shim Sham Shimmy; 21) Ain't No Meat On De Bone; 22) The Blues Got Me Rockin'; 23) Tongue Tied Blues; 24) Please Tell Me Baby; 25) Walkin' Upside Your Head; 26) Rub A Little Boogie; 27) Camille.

The final volume in the series traces our Champion's adventures in the early Fifties, with at least four different small-size labels in New York City (Apollo, Gotham, King, Red Robin), each of which wasted no time in dropping the Champ after two or three tenaciously commercially un­successful singles — released under at least five different band names and pseudonyms (in­cluding «Big Chief Ellis & His Blues Stars», «Meat Head Johnson & His Blues Hounds», and «Lightning Junior & The Empires»), before finally giving it up and returning to using his original moniker for two sessions in 1953.

Now one might indeed argue that the lack of success was due to New York's general lack of interest in the blues at the time (jazz was really where it was at), but then again, let's admit it, all these sides that Dupree cut at the time weren't exactly the epitome of notability or originality, even though, with Brownie McGhee at his side for most of these sessions, Dupree had a good guitar backing, and on some of these tracks, they are also joined by Brownie's younger brother, Stick, the guy who, some say, was single-handedly responsible for inventing rock'n'roll with his classic recor­ding of ʽDrinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Deeʼ back in 1947.

As «Meat Head Johnson & His Blues Hounds», they almost came close to replicating that sound with ʽOld, Old Womanʼ, where, at the beginning, you will be hearing some angry distorted guitar chords coming right out of the (future!) Keith Richards chordbook; and it gets even better on ʽShake Baby Shakeʼ from 1953, with both Brownie and Stick on guitars and the Champ laying on a groove that would, of course, only three years later morph into the classic ʽWhole Lotta Shakin' Going Onʼ groove of Jerry Lee Lewis. If only the Champion could show the same punch that the Killer would show... but the days of true rock'n'roll wildness were still ahead, and these cats had to show some decorum, because even with all of New Yorkish tolerance towards black musicians, politeness in playing dance music was still a necessary prerequisite for not being run out of town. Still, there's as much rock'n'roll drive in these tracks here as you could only wish for 1953. Also, ʽShim Sham Shimmyʼ totally rules, with a bombastic drum beat, guitar more distorted than on any given Chuck Berry tune, and cool jazz-boogie runs from Stick that totally presage Alvin Lee of Ten Years After in tone and style, if not in flash.

Still, the majority of these tracks is not proto-rock'n'roll, but slow 12-bar blues, and here, there is nothing more to add unless you really want to start analyzing the lyrics — some of which are quite interesting from the point of historical studies in the evolution of political correctness (ʽTongue Tied Bluesʼ), or from the point of folkloristic studies of the evolution of text (the song that we usually know as ʽLouiseʼ, because this is the name under which it crossed the Atlantic and fell in the hands of The Yardbirds and others, is here called ʽCamilleʼ... come to think of it, the only words it shares with ʽLouiseʼ are in the chorus, but the chorus coincides completely). Also, if I am not mistaken, ʽAin't No Meat On De Boneʼ has a New Orleanian, Mardi Gras-like carnivalesque groove to it (think Professor Longhair), which makes it somewhat of an oddity in the Champion's New York-era material.

Bottomline is, none of this material ever sold much, despite a few of the tracks truly being on the cutting edge of the rock'n'roll movement for 1951-53, but you just gotta admire the guy's tena­ciousness — he eventually spent almost fifteen years on the fringes of New York's musical life, jumping from label to label and making a living by any means he could. It was, in fact, nothing short of amazing that despite all his shortcomings, he was eventually able of securing himself a short-lived contract with no less than Atlantic Records themselves around 1959 (perhaps through the Stick McGhee connection?), at which point we end the story of this 4-CD package and move on to the next exciting (or not so exciting) chapter in the life of the Champion.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Rolling Stones: Dirty Work

THE ROLLING STONES: DIRTY WORK (1986)

1) One Hit (To The Body); 2) Fight; 3) Harlem Shuffle; 4) Hold Back; 5) Too Rude; 6) Winning Ugly; 7) Back To Zero; 8) Dirty Work; 9) Had It With You; 10) Sleep Tonight.

It is not disputable that the overall state of the band in the mid-Eighties was quite pitiful: not only were the personal relations between Mick and Keith reaching an absolute nadir, with Mick's egotism and Keith's conservatism getting the better of them, but then there was also the problem with Charlie Watts, a notorious slowpoke whose alcohol and drug problems finally caught up with him a whole decade after Keith's crisis. Even Wyman seemed to find more comfort pro­ducing movie soundtracks in that era than working with the Stones.

Now the Stones are known as a band that often seemed to work better in a time of crisis, capable of channelling their agitation, confusion, and tension into music — think back to 1967 or to 1972 for some classic examples. Unfortunately, their worst crisis (worst, because its main reasons were internal rather than external) took place not in 1967 and not in 1972, but in 1985-86, some of the least auspicious years, to put it mildly, for Sixties' and Seventies' veteran rockers in general; and although you'd have to be deaf and dumb not to notice all that tension reflected in the sounds of Dirty Work, this time around it does not help the music, it only makes matters more obnoxious. There is no tricking the hand of fate — it was 1986, and it was the Stones' destiny to come up with their crappiest artistic statement of all time.

What is wrong with this record? Well — almost everything. To produce it, they brought in one of the biggest stars of Eighties' production, Steve Lillywhite, whose impressive resume already in­cluded Peter Gabriel's classic third album and the first three albums by U2; incidentally, he also happens to be the guy often credited with pioneering the gated reverb drum effect (which, predic­tably, is used a-plenty on this album). The problem is, what worked fine and dandy for the new styles of music developed by Gabriel and U2 could hardly be expected to work for old school rockers like the Stones — and it doesn't: the combination of glossy, plastic production with tradi­tional rock'n'roll values pretty much wastes the gloss and discredits the rock'n'roll. This was already a big problem with Undercover, but here modern production values are applied far more systematically, and the constant use of reverb and echo gets obnoxious very quickly.

Stiff production would still be a minor nuisance, though, had the songwriting and playing been kept on the level — which they are not. Ronnie Wood is credited as co-writer on a whopping four tracks here, which is already suspicious, seeing how reluctant Mick and Keith had always been to share the songwriting credits with anybody else; this is essentially a sign of their not giving a damn whatsoever (for the record, ever since the 1989 comeback, poor Ronnie never got a single other songwriting credit). Even more ridiculously, ʽBack To Zeroʼ is co-credited to their guest piano player, Chuck Leavell — did the late Ian Stewart or the great Nicky Hopkins ever get even one credit on some of those tracks that would never work so well without their participation?.. Throw in two covers, and you can see how much of a mess the record really was.

But hey, perhaps, against all odds, some of these songs could turn out to be masterpieces? Well, miracles did not happen in 1986. A few of them rank among the worst piles of sonic shit ever committed to tape in the name of the Rolling Stones — including both conventional rockers and songs outside of the band's typical range. For instance, ʽHold Backʼ almost manages to sound like a contemporary hair metal anthem — big fat sound with a shapeless, meaningless riff and the entire song dominated by headache-inducing drum bombast and an endless stream of tuneless barking from Mick «Turpentine Butt» Jagger (which, by the way, is also a common problem with the record: the only style for Mick to sing in here is gurgle and bark, bark and gurgle, as if he wanted to compete in monotony with some bona fide hardcore punk outfit). ʽFightʼ, true to its title, is not nearly as shapeless as to what concerns the verses and choruses, but otherwise shares all the problems of ʽHold Backʼ — no good riff, no good vocal melody, and no true Stonesy dynamics to the playing.

With the non-rockers, the situation does not get any better: there are no well-made funky sur­prises like ʽToo Much Bloodʼ here. Instead, you have ʽBack To Zeroʼ, a messy dance-pop number that finds the band genuinely struggling to find a coordinated groove — one big reason behind this, perhaps, is that, according to most accounts, the band almost never really played as a band in the studio at the time, with individual members laying on their contributions one by one, a process that could work with Paul McCartney but never really with the Stones. (At least, never since the creative peak of the late Sixties, when Keith alone could work magic with his guitar overdub layers). Meanwhile, Keith gets re-engaged with his passion for reggae, producing a piss-poor version of Half Pint's 1983 hit ʽWinsomeʼ, retitled ʽToo Rudeʼ and overlaid with so much echo on everything that you get the feeling of standing on one side of a cave entrance while the band is getting it on on the other side. Sh-sh-sh-sh-shak-e-e-e! And pointless: who really needs to hear the Stones doing reggae?

A couple more of the rockers barely make it to the «mediocre» level due to slightly higher levels of tightness and catchiness (ʽWinning Uglyʼ; the ridiculously belated anti-capitalist rant of the title track), but on the whole, there are only three songs here that I would recommend salvaging for compilations — not surprisingly, two of these were chosen for single releases and were also the only ones temporarily resurrected for the 1989-90 touring program. ʽOne Hit (To The Body)ʼ, even with the stupid production and the barking vocals (here, they work though), is a good piece of ravaging rock'n'soul, again, with no decent riff to speak of, but at least a catchy chorus that does a good job of conveying the mixed love-and-pain emotion of love addiction. The most poignant bit about it, of course, is that the song's lyrics seemed to be more of an allegory for the love-and-hate relationship between the band's two members — as further confirmed by the half-hilarious, half-frightening pseudo-karate match between Mick and Keith in the accompanying video (no chainsaws this time, but Mr. Richards can get even spookier with a guitar). As a ques­tionable bonus, you can throw in a guest guitar solo from Mr. Jimmy Page himself — strange they didn't bring in Eddie Van Halen, who'd probably be even more suitable.

The same trick is also reprised on the far less known ʽHad It With Youʼ, which I have always held a soft spot for because of all the songs in here, it is the one that is least encumbered with bombastic production and, consequently, the most close one to reflect those good old col­lective Stones values. Apparently, Keith wrote the lyrics and Mick got to sing them, tacitly acknowled­ging the truth of lines like "You always seem to haunt me / Serving out injunctions / Shouting out instructions" and "You're a mean mistreater / You're a dirty dirty rat scum" — and putting his bark to good use on the pissed-off "I HAD it, HAD it, HAD it wich'ooo!" chorus. It is not a great song — it is simply a charming autobiographical moment, done in style, including, finally, a normal drum track from Charlie and a proper harmonica solo from Mick. Too bad they'd never dare perform this live in public, meaning that the song will forever dangle in obscurity, even though, in my mind, it deserves to be included in any comprehensive musical biography of The Rolling Stones.

Then, finally, there is their cover of ʽHarlem Shuffleʼ, a resuscitation of the old Bob & Earl hit from 1963 — probably just to see how well this «Lillywhite Stones» sound of 1986 could acco­­modate the old soul values from the young and innocent days. They made a good choice, because the bass-heavy original already had a shade of surprising darkness to it, which is here emphasized even further: the Stones' take lays it on even thicker in the bass department, and even the organ has a certain doom-laden atmosphere to it, so that most of the time it's not so much a ʽHarlem Shuffleʼ as it is a ʽHighway To Hellʼ (much less «happy fun» in spirit than the AC/DC song, for that matter). The good news is that the song was catchy from the beginning, and also that it is taken at a respectable mid-tempo rather than whipped up to crazy frenzy like most of the stuff here — and even Jagger's barking makes sense as he is playing a possessed figure with all those "whoah, whoah, whoah, I can't stand it no more!" Ironically, this is the tune that reveals the most psychological depth on the entire album — there's dancing as an allegory for the sex drive, and there's all those primal and hellish connotations for both, bringing back memories of how this band once used to set the tone in the art of on-the-brink temptation.

But are three songs enough to properly pull Dirty Work out of the Stones' asscrack where it has remained firmly wedged for thirty years now? I don't think so. Together with Emotional Rescue, these are the only two records in the band's catalog that, on the whole, have an offensive aura to me — even if they sound quite different from each other and offend in completely different ways. (Funny enough, both of them also end with an amorphous lullaby from Keith: ʽSleep Tonightʼ has a slightly more memorable chorus than ʽAll About Youʼ, mainly due to repetition, but overall is undistinguishable from the large pool of slow soul ballads written by the guy, not to mention just as poorly produced here as anything.) Simply put, with a few moments' exception, the band's heart was not clearly in this when they went ahead and did it — this is a record that never should have happened in the first place. Had Mick and Keith truly broken up for good after this, Dirty Work would have been a fairly pitiful way to end an illustrious career; as it happened, it ended up just being a time-marking embarrassment, a certified thumbs down record, only out there to prove the universal applicability of the term «mid-life crisis», even to superhumans, and to serve as yet another piece of strong evidence for the «mid-Eighties curse» from which not even Keith Richards was exempt. Perhaps if he'd still been on heroin though...

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Agnes Obel: Citizen Of Glass

AGNES OBEL: CITIZEN OF GLASS (2016)

1) Stretch Your Eyes; 2) Familiar; 3) Red Virgin Soil; 4) It's Happening Again; 5) Stone; 6) Trojan Horses; 7) Citizen Of Glass; 8) Golden Green; 9) Grasshopper; 10) Mary.

At the very least, she deserves some credit here for finally deciding to branch out and diversify the formula. No major changes, that is, but at least this time around, it gets harder to confuse her with the average sentimental piano balladeer — if only because there's less piano around and more strings, as well as more variegated keyboards, a mix of acoustic (vibraphones, etc.) and old-fashioned electric stuff like the Mellotron and even the Trautonium, a real electronic relic hauled straight out of the 1930s. Apparently, this is the first instrument to be heard here, producing the odd siren wail in the intro to ʽStretch Your Eyesʼ and immediately setting an atmosphere of distant alarm — always distant, of course, because the protagonist of all of Obel's songs lives in a perfectly shielded bunker; as long as she confines herself to that place, she's perfectly safe from all the troubles above.

The title of the album apparently translates the German term gläserner bürger, and is used to define a (human) object of mass surveillance, but do not think that the lady goes into politics here, or into morbid ruminations on humanity's dystopian future (unless you really want to interpret a line like "we took a walk to the summit at night, you and I" as a documentary description of an imaginary meeting between Russian and American presidents). It is more of a hint at herself, I believe, and how she's got nothing to hide, a predictably irritating paradox in the light of the fact that she is still hiding everything that is possible to hide, because a straightforward interpretation of any of these songs remains out of the question.

The songs do get more complex in structure, and it gets harder to shoo any of them away as just another melancholic waltz — in fact, I suspect that somebody must have told her to lay off the waltzing, because the time signatures here tend to get less and less trivial; not challenging enough to approach avantgarde levels, but diverse and unpredictable enough to lay off any accusations of laziness. She is clearly interested in exploring the possibilities of classical and «retro-modern» instrumentation in the modern studio, and I respect that. I only wish that the songs had been as memorable as they were on Philharmonics, which is still not the case, alas.

Atmosphere-wise, ʽStretch Your Eyesʼ is clearly an improvement over most of Aventine. The combination of whale-like synthesizer sounds with the quietly, but firmly plucked strings and bowed cellos really gives it a sort of «walking under water» feel, a perfect backdrop for an equally glorious performance... but this is where the song falls short, because other than her usual «frozen lady of the lake» tone, Agnes does not reward the instrumental mix with any outstanding moments of vocal magic; actually, she's no better and no worse than Lana Del Rey now in this department, although I'd still take her instrumental compositions over Lana's in a whiff.

On ʽFamiliarʼ, she makes an awful mistake by having the chorus sung by an uncredited male performer who sounds like Antony Hegarty (oh, sorry, Anohni) with a particularly sore throat, turning the song from something that was distinctly Agnes Obel into something else that is even more distinctly not. I know it's supposed to be a you-and-I duet and all, but in her own singing, even when it is hookless, she manages to avoid theatrical mannerisms and come across as a real human being — so why is she taking a walk to the summit at night with a guy who sounds as if he wouldn't really be interested in girls in the first place? Also, the music here is getting way too dangerously close to New Age values, even for my tastes.

Still, I cannot get truly angry at most of these songs. The title track, for instance, has something Eno-like about it in its soothing piano and vocal harmony ambience. ʽStoneʼ does the same with acoustic guitar (and actually adds a strange vocal hook, which always sounded like "stone canopy, stone canopy" to me until I learned that it was really the artist asking herself whether she can be of stone — do not worry, Frøken Obel, you are of stone, in way... or should that be fiberglass? Citizen Of Fiberglass, yes, that would be a good title).

Anyway, without going into too much detail on the rest of this stuff: she is still getting a good sound of all these instruments, and, technically, she remains an above-average composer, but the new twists and expansions do not change my base impression that she has already made her single most important statement, and that she is going to spend the rest of her life just bathing us in the somewhat shapeless beauty of her impressionistic approach. Which is nice and all, but as long as she is incapable of finding any particularly heart-tugging soundwave configurations, I do not find myself interested in trying to decode her enigmatic messages, or defining the types of persons to whom her sorrowful and subtle music would appeal the most. Perhaps she should try coming out of that bunker? Or at least, exchange it for a less soft-padded one?..

Friday, April 14, 2017

Cass McCombs: Humor Risk

CASS McCOMBS: HUMOR RISK (2011)

1) Love Thine Enemy; 2) The Living Word; 3) The Same Thing; 4) To Every Man His Chimera; 5) Robin Egg Blue; 6) Mystery Mail; 7) Meet Me At The Mannequin Gallery; 8) Mariah.

McCombs' second album, in his own words, was "just punched out", and it certainly sounds like that. If the ultimate keywords for Wit's End were «slow, draggy, and atmospheric», then Humor Risk clearly tries to restore the balance with «upbeat, loud, and energetic». Unfortunately, that does not make it much of an improvement over its more pensive and serious older brother. It only makes it more obvious how annoying McCombs can get when he is not really trying.

Let us keep it clean and precise. Cass has always had and still has his way with words. You take a song like ʽLove Thine Enemyʼ and just look at the lyrics — and there are some sharp contrasts there, like "Every idiot thing you say speaks of pain and truth / Because of the beautiful way your tongue can seduce". He walks a nice thin line between the mystical sarcasm of Dylan and the heart-on-sleeve attitude of simplistic indie writers, provoking and challenging at least a little bit in almost every song. But his singing, so magical at times on A, has all but deteriorated to a monotonous murmur; and as for the music, the song has little going for it other than a distorted three-chord rock riff. Does that suffice to count for «enchantment»? Sorry, no.

Some people have compared his attitude on this tune to the classic sounds of The Velvet Under­ground — this is very, very silly, in my opinion, but since the comparison has been made, it makes sense to make use of it and remind everybody that on classic simple VU rockers, as mono­tonous as they could be, the atmosphere was generated by the total unity of purpose between all of the song's elements. You had a nasty guitar sound, a nasty vocalist, and some nasty lyrics that, taken together, generated Rebel Art like crazy. But in ʽLove Thine Enemyʼ, the primal power of the distorted riff is wasted — it does not really click in perfection with the lyrics or the vocals or the rest of the arrangement. It's just there because Cass likes to give us a bit of simplistic rock riffage from time to time, to establish a connection with the old punk spirit despite not having a punk spirit himself.

It gets worse, much worse on ʽMystery Mailʼ. At least ʽLove Thine Enemyʼ is short, but this other song, riding a half-century old chord sequence without any variety whatsoever, goes on for eight minutes. I don't know if the story about «Daniel» and his unfortunate experiments with drugs and the law is autobiographical, or allegorical, or culled from real or fictional sources, or is just some homage to a Springsteen or a Tom Petty ballad, and I certainly do not care to know: all I know is that the whole thing is mind-numbingly boring. (It also rips off its vocal intro and outro from Blondie's ʽThe Hardest Partʼ — bet that is a bit of exclusive trivia you won't find anywhere else in the world other than on Only Solitaire). Is this art? Is this entertainment? Is this meaning­ful self-expression? Is this a triumph of freedom, when you can just walk into the studio, record any tripe that comes into your head on the spur of the moment and release it publicly, knowing full well that, no matter what you do, out of 7 billion people on this planet, there's bound to be at least a couple hundred thousand who will fall for it?..

I will admit that ʽThe Same Thingʼ, ʽTo Every Man His Chimeraʼ, ʽMeet Me At The Mannequin Galleryʼ and the creaky lo-fi album closer ʽMariahʼ all have some pretty vocal moments. ʽThe Same Thingʼ has a Lennon-like aura to its echoey, double-tracked vocals, but I'm talking of one phrase here — one vocal phrase repeated over and over and over for six minutes (except for the bridge sections that are nowhere near as moody). ʽTo Every Manʼ has one lovely chord change that you will already hear around 0:40 during the instrumental introduction — to get them in the vocal version, you will have to endure about a minute of super-slow, super-sparse indie-bluesy lethargic playing for each one. (As a consolation bonus, you will be pleased to learn that "California makes me sick / Like trying with a rattlesnake your teeth to pick" — a bit of Latin poetry syntax here, but quite expressive imagery all the same). And ʽMariahʼ manages to turn this particular proper name into a seductive vocal hook, rhyming it with ʽdesireʼ, ʽthe fireʼ, ʽnever tiresʼ, ʽtake me higherʼ, and even ʽinside herʼ, but even this really pretty acoustic ballad is spoiled by the idiotic lo-fi production, burying it in white noise just because we somehow have to go on and simulate the lack of access to a normal studio environment.

As far as I'm concerned, this is not a case of a talented artist suddenly (or gradually) deprived of his talent by illness, dementia, or commercial pressure. This is a case of a talented person inten­tionally wasting his talent on adaptation to the stereotypical image of an «indie artist» — you know, one for whom «sincerity» and «telling it like it is, but from your own and nobody else's individual perspective» means everything, while everything else (original melody, fresh arran­gement, musicality as such) means nothing. In other words, a case of crapola that deserves a very harsh thumbs down, and serves as a good example, I believe, of the overall unhealthy influence of «artistic expectations» on people who could do much, much better. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Candlemass: Live

CANDLEMASS: LIVE (1990)

1) The Well Of Souls; 2) Dark Are The Veils Of Death; 3) Bewitched; 4) Solitude; 5) Dark Reflections; 6) Under The Oak; 7) Demon's Gate; 8) The Bells Of Acheron; 9) Through The Infinitive Halls Of Death; 10) Samarithan; 11) Mirror, Mirror; 12) At The Gallows End; 13) The Sorcerer's Pledge.

Live heavy metal albums are usually a waste of time, with two exceptions: (a) metal bands that still preserve a lot of that old kick-ass rock'n'spirit, like Judas Priest, may follow the old principle of compensating for studio slickness with raw live energy; (b) mediocre metal bands that sound way too monotonous from album to album may have live albums that simply work as decent introductions / summaries of their overall sound, usually concentrating on the better stuff and leaving out the crap. Candlemass Live is a typical representative of group (b) — if you are interested in the band, but not enough to explore them in detail, this is a really good place to start... and, perhaps, to end.

Recorded on their native ground (in Stockholm), the album finds the classic lineup in as good a form as possible, with fine production (better than on the early studio records, actually), a rather tepid reception from the audience (which is okay, since it only helps the songs to sound better) and, most importantly, a near-perfect setlist — at least, all of my favorite Candlemass songs are here, and the energy level leaves me with nothing to complain about. ʽDemon's Gateʼ, ʽSolitudeʼ, ʽSorcerer's Pledgeʼ — these live versions totally correct all the original studio murkiness, with normally sounding drums and real deep rumble-crunch from the guitars, as compared to the almost lo-fi production quality of Epicus; honestly, even if you are a certified metalhead, I can't see how you'd like to go back to the 1986 values after hearing these versions.

Other than these two important details — great sound quality and intelligent setlist — there is really not much to say. Marcolin live is just as obnoxious as he is in the studio, but not that much more obnoxious: the obligatory audience-baiting is kept to a relative minimum (a few oi-oi-oi's here and there to get them a-clappin' and a-stompin', but nothing even close to Ozzy's trademark "let me fuckin' see your fuckin' hands, come on!"), and his treatment of Längqvist's material would probably have completely satisfied Längqvist himself (but not me). Johansson's leads are as fluent and technically perfect as they are in the studio, sometimes with a bit of extra flash. And structurally, the songs are played as close to the originals as possible.

I understand that there are several different versions of the album floating around — for instance, my version adds ʽThe Bells Of Acheronʼ, and then there's a 2-CD version with a separate show from 1988 as a bonus — but this is already in the sphere of trivia, useless for casual fans, so let's just top this off with a thumbs up and close the book on this first stage in the life of Candlemass, ending with the departure of Marcolin, and bringing on an image renovation for the new decade.